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Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Have you ever wondered if kids who behave badly really can't help it? I'm not saying that children are not responsible for their actions. But what if the brains of some are hardwired that makes impulsive reactions more natural?

Last month, at our Elevate Summer Camp, a child pulled a fire alarm one afternoon. I've known this child for over a year, and I've seen him making foolish choices and then honestly regretting them later. I talked with him about what he did, and I know exactly what happened. He saw that the alarm said "Pull" and he just did so. Immediately, he realized what he did and said to the girl next to him, "Don't tell anyone what I just did." Thankfully, she did.

He made an impulsive decision. He often lives as if there is no filter between his desires and his actions. I don't think he is alone in having this problem of difficult-to-control urges towards negative behavior. For example, researchers have discovered an association between alcoholism and genetics.

The Science of Aggression

With many children that we have ministered to in Allendale, there seems to be an excessive amount of anger and aggression. No matter how many times we converse with them, or how many consequences they get, they still impulsively react with anger (that does not dissipate quickly). We know that there is a connection between Anger and Fatherlessness, but is there something going on on a deeper biological level?

Researchers from Germany have used molecular imaging to monitor the presence of the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine typically calms neural and bodily activity, so a lagging release of this chemical is a key factor in anger and aggression. As the team noted, "For many people, anger is an almost automatic response to life's challenges" (emphasis mine).

Helping Them Manage

So, if negative behavior cannot be controlled (or at least, controlled with great difficulty), how should we respond? Should we just give up, and throw in the towel? Of course not!

In working with kids who have issues with ADHD and emotional self-control, we have to help them learn to manage their challenges. We cannot go to the extreme of excusing and allowing their behavior, and we cannot go to the other extreme of blindly punishing behavior that is more childish than foolish and rebellious.

We have to give children the bigger vision, that includes these principles:
  • "We love you."
  • "We accept you and understand your challenges."
  • "In order for you to succeed, we have to help learn to control your behavior and make better choices."

A Theology of Impulsivity 

But I also know that asking a child (or an adult, for that matter) to "do better" will always be a losing battle. For whatever desires and impulses we have, the natural self will win if the person is in the battle alone, especially if there is some sort of ingrained biological tendency.

The Christ-follower, however, is not alone in this battle. Those who have the Spirit of God living in them have a power-filled desire to control their actions. Instead of a mind vs flesh battle, we live a spirit vs flesh battle (Galatians 5:16-17).

When we are tempted with selfish and destructive impulses, we can remember these principles from the article Temptation Is an Invitation:
  1. Temptation is not a sin
  2. Resist the devil
  3. Draw near to God
  4. Know the Word
  5. Look for the exit sign
  6. Rinse and repeat
 **image courtesy of adamfast via sxc.hu

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